Maple Leafs Prospects Watch: Marner vs Dermott for the Wayne Gretzky Trophy

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Most people figured that the battle for the Wayne Gretzky Trophy as the winner of the OHL’s Western Conference would come down to a matchup between the London Knights and the Erie Otters, and that’s exactly what we have starting tonight. 

As the leading scorer in the postseason, Mitch Marner looks to take yet another step towards showcasing his talents on junior’s biggest stage at the Memorial Cup, but as with last round, he will have to eliminate a future teammate. This time, it’s Travis Dermott and the top-ranked Erie Otters that look to knock off the OHL’s hottest and most hyped team.

The Matchup

These two teams enter the series very familiar with each other and very evenly matched as both teams ended the year with 105 points to lead the entire OHL. Over the regular season, the teams split their six meetings including a home and home series on the last weekend of the schedule, that saw Erie hold on to the top seed in the league and home-ice advantage for this Western Conference final. 

With such high-end offensive talent in this series like Marner, Strome, and Dvorak, you’d assume a high scoring, offensive battle. In reality, these two teams gave up the fewest goals in the OHL during the regular season and have been continued the trend into the playoffs. Both teams have game breaking skill at forward but also have a defense built with veterans to go with underrated draft eligible secondary guys. 

As is often the case in the playoffs, each team is going to focus on shutting down each other’s big line, so with the offensive production falling to the secondary players, guys like 2016 draft eligible forwards, Cliff Pu and Taylor Raddysh.

The Erie Otters

The Otters come into the Western Conference final with an incredible 8-1 playoff record through the first two rounds. After sweeping Saginaw, Erie made quick work of the Soo Greyhounds holding them to only two goals a game over the five-game series. 

As expected, Erie’s offense has been carried by Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat. Strome is averaging more than two points a game through the playoffs with an astounding 10 goals through the team’s nine games. After wearing down last season and being a non-factor in the OHL Final loss to Oshawa, Strome will look to prove that being a year older will help him to maintain his performance deep into the playoffs. 

From a Toronto perspective, the first two rounds of the playoffs for Erie should be nothing but exciting as Travis Dermott has been absolutely dominant on the Otters blueline. He has been shutting down the opposition’s top players while at the same time contributing 12 points in only 9 games. 

Players To Watch:

Anyone paying attention to the 2016 NHL draft is aware of Otters forward Alex Debincat but there are a couple other guys that you should definitely keep your eyes on. Taylor Raddysh is a right winger that is quietly finding his way into some first round projections. He’s a big forward that has grown tremendously this season when given a bigger role in Erie, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that with continued strong play, a team could reach a little and draft him ahead of his more celebrated teammate. 

Another player to keep an eye on is one that I feel is criminally underrated by most draft analysts and could end up being a mid-round steal. Jordan Sambrook is a two-way defenceman that has only now found his way into NHL Central Scouting’s top-100 North American skaters. Sambrook is a rookie that took a little while to get going this season but has shown recently that he has the potential to be an NHL player. He’s a very good skater that is able to play well with the puck and has the instincts to be relied upon in all situations. He is a late-bloomer and is still very raw but the tools are there and for a team that wants to play the long-game, he would be a great target in the mid rounds this June.

Roster via EliteProspects

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London Knights

As has been the case all season, the Knights are being led by their big three of Marner, Dvorak and Tkachuk. While Dermott has been making Leafs Nation excited with his performance, Mitch Marner is reminding everyone why he is too good for the OHL and should be regarded as one of the best prospects in hockey. With 22 points through nine games, Marner is scoring at a rate much higher than his regular season pace. 

With both teams likely to key in on the top players, having the kind of secondary scoring potential that the Knights do will be huge. 2016 eligible Cliff Pu has looked great so far in the playoffs and is improving his draft stock with every game. 

The Knights will receive an incredibly valuable boost in the series when Max Jones returns from the 12-game suspension he received for a hit to the head in the final game of the regular season. Jones will provide the team with another forward with the ability to shut down Erie’s best offensive players. 

Players To Watch:

Since his coming out party at the World Juniors, Olli Juolevi has been one of the most hyped prospects in this year’s draft. Many scouts now have him as the best defender ahead of Jakob Chychrun. He is a tremendous player and a definite top-15 prospect but during this series, it’s important to watch how isolated his minutes can be at times. He doesn’t play on the PK for London and in the series clincher against Kitchener, he had only three shifts in the third period. 

While the fact that he’s now considered a top-5 prospect might mean that Juolevi is a little overrated, London has another defender who might be the exact opposite. Victor Mete may be one of the more underrated players in the draft. Currently ranked as the 74th best North American skater by Central Scouting, Mete has had a very good year in London. It may be because of his size, but Mete has the potential to drop further than he should in June and I would have no problem if the Leafs took him a little higher than most would expect, maybe using Washington’s second round pick on him. Mete is a lot like Travis Dermott, a little undersized as far as defenders go but he doesn’t play like it and while he isn’t flashy, he does everything that’s asked of him very well.

Roster via EliteProspects

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How Will The Series Go?

This series has all the potential to be the prototypical rough, grinding playoff battle. We saw during the regular season that these two teams don’t like each other and the bad blood may be escalated when Max Jones returns to the lineup. The key for each team will be for their stars to remain true to their game and not let the rough stuff side-track them. In the second last game of the season, London was able to completely neutralize Strome with rough and sometimes dirty play. He bounced back the following night as he led his team to the number one seed by being the best player on the ice. 

If Strome can stay on his game and Dermott continues to play the way he has in the playoffs, the Otters have a very strong chance of stopping the team many have assumed would be the OHLs representative at the Memorial Cup.

For London to score, someone other than the big three will have to step up and provide a little offense. They have the talent to do it, but thus far in the playoffs it hasn’t been necessary. 

Prediction: Erie in 7

      • silentbob

        I agree offensively he has probably learned all he can in the OHL, but thats not all their is to a players game, and its easier to work on the areas of his game that need improving in an environment where he doesn’t have to worry about his offensive production as well.

        Also, just because he is excelling in one league doesn’t mean he is ready for the next. OHL.com has him listed at 5’11, 164lbs. At the start of next season he’ll be 19 – the NHL might not be the place for a 19 year old kid who weighs 165-170 lbs.

        I see comments like that and it seems that people are just expecting him to be in the NHL next year – there is still improvements to his game that can be made in the OHL, and even if there aren’t, that doesn’t mean the NHL is the best place for him right away (its unfortunate that the middle step is blocked for a year……)

        • Look back, did I ever say he’ll be in the NHL next year?
          Being too good for the OHL does not mean NHL-ready.
          That said, Robby Fabbri doesn’t seem to have an issue playing in the NHL at the same size as Marner.

          • silentbob

            True you didn’t say that. But if he is too good for the OHL and can’t play in the AHL….. And there have been lots of players rushed the NHL and had their careers ruined by it – remember Luke Schenn?

  • CMpuck

    Juolevi winning WJC gold and a memorial cup would look good for his case to be a top five pick. I don’t the Leafs targeting him but he’s exactly what the Oilers need.

    Predicting London in 6

  • Harte of a Lion

    Tom, thanks for the great write up.

    Everyone needs to remember that there is a HUGE difference between a 164 lb teen and a 164 lb man. The body, both musculature and skeletal continues to grow, mature and get stronger as you leave the teen years and enter your 20’s. I fear that Marner is not physically ready for the grind of the NHL and I suspect that he will do his 9 games and then be returned to London to work on all aspects of his game.

    If you look at Nylander from his draft to last year at the Leafs rookie camp, the difference is dramatic and I’m certain that he will come to camp next year between 190 to 200 lbs. he was 174 when drafted.

    I expect Marner’s playing weight will end up between 175-185 lbs by the time he finishes growing and working with the strength coaches but to reiterate,
    A teen at 180 lbs is far different than a man at the same weight. He needs to strengthen his legs and core or he will be extremely susceptible to injury.

    I believe McDavid would not have broken bones had he fallen the same was in his 20’s.

    • magesticRAGE

      I was with you until you mentioned the McDavid injury. With the speed that kid was traveling at, combined with the two grown men crushing him from behind, Chara would have suffered the same fate. McDavid is just shy of 195lbs and 6’1, not a fragile size. With the way he went into the boards, he just didn’t have a chance, regardless of age or weight.

  • Gary Empey

    Barely no mention of Tkachuk, except that he plays with Marner and Dvorak. He has excelled in the playoffs so far. There is a very good chance the Leafs will be drafting him with their first pick. This is the player Leaf Nation should be watching.

  • Gary Empey

    Well, I expect a physically grinding series along with lots of penalties. This is why these players should be paid. I would pay higher ticket prices to support the players since they seem to get so little anyway and all the money goes to the owners. This is why I have little regard for the CHL.

    Pretty go deal for the owners…taxpayers pay for their arena and they get free labour. This could be termed as cronyism. Funny, I got asked to refrain from eating a homemade sandwich from one of these publicly funded arenas from my locale. Do the taxpayers see any benefit from these partnerships? Taxes go up anyway. Why should gov be involved in minor hockey and other entertainment? Perhaps the 300 billion dollar debt in Ontario is the reason. To top it off, some OHL arenas are managed by American companies.